More on Erroneous Eyewitness Testimony

This post is based primarily on an article by Steven J. Frenda, Rebecca M. Nichols, and Elizabeth F. Loftus titled “Current Issues and Advances in Information Research,” in Current Directions in Psychological Science (2015) 20, 20-23.  They note a recent discussion of the distorting effects witnesses have on the memory of other witnesses by Wright, Memon, Skakerberg, and and Gabbert (2009) in Current Directions in Psychological Science, 18, 174-178.  They propose that there three accounts of why eyewitnesses come to report incorrect information.
A witness’s report may be altered due to normative social influence.  A witness might decide that the cost of disagreeing with law enforcement—or with other witnesses—is too high, and so adjusts her report accordingly.
Through informational social influence processes, a witness comes to endorse a version of events that is different from what he remembers because he believes it to be truer or more accurate than hi own memory.
A witness’s memory can become distorted, sometimes as a result of being exposed to incorrect or misleading information.
It is this third possibility that this blog post addresses.

Perhaps the first question is “who is vulnerable?”  The short answer is that nobody is immune to the distorting effects of misinformation, but some people are more vulnerable than others.  Very young children and the elderly are more susceptible to misinformation than adolescents and adults.  People who report lapses in memory and attention are also specially vulnerable.  These facts suggest that a poverty of cognitive resources results in an increased reliance on external cues to reconstruct memories.  Misinformation effects are easier to obtain when individuals’ attentional resources are limited.  Similarly, people who perceive themselves to be forgetful and who experience memory lapses may be less able or willing to depend on their own resources as the sole source of information as they mental reconstruct an event.

Two major studies containing more than 400 participants explored cognitive ability and personality factors as predictors of susceptibility to misinformation.  In these studies participants viewed slides of two crimes and later read narratives of the crimes that contained misinformation.  Participants who had higher intelligence scores, greater perceptual abilities, greater working memory capacities, and greater performance on face recognition tasks tended to resist misinformation and produce fewer false memories.   Some personality characteristics were also shown to be associated with false memory formation, particularly in individuals with lesser cognitive ability.  Individuals low in fear of negative evaluation and harm avoidance, and those high in cooperativeness, reward dependence and self-directedness were associated with increased vulnerability to misinformation effects.

Functional magnetic resonance imaging fMRI is being used to investigate brain activity association with misinformation effects.  In one study participants were shown a series of photographs and later listed to an auditory narrative describing, which included misinformation.  Shortly thereafter, they were placed in an MRI scanner and given a test of their memory for the photographs.  fMRI data revealed similar patterns of brain activity, but the true memories (formed by visual information) showed somewhat more activation in the visual cortex, whereas the false memories (derived from the auditory narrative) showed somewhat more activity in the auditory cortex.

Obviously a critical question is how to protect against misinformation effects.  To this end a cognitive interview (CI) methodology, which consists of a set of rules and guidelines for  interviewing eyewitnesses.  For example, the recommended methodology uses free recall, contextual cues, temporal ordering of events, and recalling an event from a variety of perspectives (for example, from a perpetrator’s point of view).
The technique also recommends that investigators avoid suggestive questioning, that they develop rapport with the witness, and discourages witnesses from guessing.  Research has supported the idea that the CI reduces or eliminates the misinformation effect.

Here the misinformation effect is considered only in the context of eyewitness testimony.  Unfortunately misinformation is a large problem that has only been exacerbated with the advent of the internet.  The central problem is that it is difficult to correct misinformation.  I would contend that there is an epidemic of misinformation with large numbers of people holding notions contrary to science.  It is extremely difficult to correct their misconceptions.  To read more about misinformation simply enter “misinformation”  into the healthy memory search box.


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